Oct 31, 2020 - Science

Climate scientists are frequent flyers

A passenger jet lands at Berlin Tegel Airport.
A passenger jet lands at Berlin Tegel Airport. Photo: Bernd von Jutrczenka/picture alliance via Getty Images

A study published this month found climate scientists fly more often than researchers in other fields, though they're also less likely to fly long distances for leisure.

Why it matters: Flying is in general the most carbon-intensive way to travel per mile, and the fact that even climate scientists have a difficult time cutting back on their air miles underscores the dilemma that can exist between fighting climate change and adding to it.

By the numbers: The survey — done before the pandemic brought air travel to a halt — asked more than 1,400 scientists in 59 countries across multiple disciplines how often they fly and why.

  • Climate scientists took five flights a year on average, compared to four for researchers in other fields.
  • While climate science often requires travel to remote locations for fieldwork, the study accounted for this difference and still found climate scientists flew more often, likely because the field features numerous global scientific conferences.

Yes, but: Climate scientists took fewer international flights for personal reasons and were more likely to pay for carbon offsets.

What they're saying: "I’d like to think these results are a wake-up call to scientists, and particularly climate researchers, to take significant steps to reduce their professional carbon footprint," says Lorraine Whitmarsh, an environmental psychologist at the University of Bath and the lead author on the paper.

My thought bubble: Air travel gets to the heart of one of the defining questions around climate action: how important is individual change to a massive global problem?

  • The fact that climate scientists appear to fly more often is less about individual ethics than the fact that it's difficult to work in the modern world without adding to climate change.
  • Altering that calculus will require major political and technological changes that go well beyond what any individual chooses to do.

Of note: The longest flight I ever took as a reporter was New York to Bali, via Frankfurt and Singapore, for the 2007 UN climate change conference.

  • That was 11,277 miles one way, or a little over 2 metric tons of CO2.

What to watch: Whether the shift to online scientific conferences will last once the COVID-19 pandemic ends, as many climate scientists are urging.

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